Historian and author David McCullough was a boy of 8, growing up in Pittsburgh, when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II.
In 1942, he became a Junior Commando, and went door-to-door with his wagon to collect scrap iron. "We had air-raid drills; my father listened to the radio every night. It was very real."
The Pittsburgh steel mills were going full blast, day and night, lighting up the sky, as they increased output of steel for the war effort. "We would look at that red light at night, and it meant we were doing our part to help win the war."
That redness, shinning in the dark, became an indelible symbol of hope. So, when the opportunity came for McCullough to perform at the annual Christmas concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it is perhaps no surprise that he chose to tell a story connected with the American carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" where "in thy dark street shineth the everlasting light," and an event that happened during World War II.
As has become a tradition with the annual Christmas concert, that narration has not only been released on DVD, but also was turned into a book, “In The Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story” (Deseret Book, $19.99).
The book includes McCullough's text, a DVD of that portion of the Christmas concert, wartime photos and other historic snippets.
McCullough is very pleased with how it turned out. "They did a beautiful job," he said in a telephone chat from his Maine home. And if you notice that the title uses a "the" instead of the "thy" from the song; that is deliberate, he said. The book's message "is not just part of the old times. It is still part of our vision today. It is a reminder that it is still better to light one candle, that it is still possible to find light for our dark streets."
The story tells of a Christmas Eve visit to America in 1941 by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. On that visit, Churchill heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem" for the first time, and it proved to be an inspiration in a dark time.
"That was one of the darkest times in world civilization," said McCullough. "Half our navy had been destroyed. We were training recruits with wooden rifles because we didn't have adequate weapons. England was on her last legs, and we were fighting one of the worst totalitarian regimes of all time."
So often history is taught, he said, "by connecting this to that along a track, as if it had to turn out the way it did. But there were no had-tos. No one knew what would happen, how it would turn out. It was a very dark time."
The country came together and was united in the effort, he said. "It touched every one. And that's what we need today. We think we can go off and fight these wars, and not have them affect most of us. But we all have to pay a price; we all have to make a sacrifice."
A second song McCullough talks of in the book is "I'll Be Home For Christmas," which was written in 1942. It's still a meaningful song, but "what it meant then were the millions of soldiers serving overseas. Knowing that gives it a poignancy and a power that needs to be appreciated. We need to set things in context; it gives them infinitely more meaning."
That setting into context has become a lifelong task for McCullough, who has been called "a master of narrative history" and twice has won a Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award. His books have looked at the lives of John Adams and Harry S. Truman. They've dissected pivotal years and events such as 1776 and the Johnstown flood. He currently is finishing up his ninth book, which looks at a variety of Americans who lived in Paris, and not just for political reasons, but also to paint, to write, to be immersed in culture. "I've had a better time writing this one than I've ever had," he said.
"History is not just military events and politics," he said. "It is works of art. What we write, what we compose, what we paint, what we sculpt, what we put on the stage is as important in the long run as anything we do. For some civilizations, all we know about them is their art."
Music is an especially powerful part of our American heritage, he said. "It is hard to imagine America without her music. Taking away the songs and the lyrics is like taking away the Rocky Mountains."
McCullough has always loved the story behind "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," which was his mother's favorite carol, and was written as a poem by American clergyman Phillips Brooks after a visit to Jerusalem in 1865. A few years later, Brooks asked a friend to set his poem to music. For McCullough, a "wonderful part of it was how the man struggled, and then woke up in the night with the tune in his head. But that's not just a story. That really happened. And that's what history is. History is about people doing all kinds of things."
Sharing his love of history and music with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was a "thrilling experience," said McCullough, and something he owes to his friend, the late Larry H. Miller. "I had come to know Larry some years ago. I had been working on a project to help teachers teach history, and had told Larry about it. He loved history and thought it was something that should be tried in Salt Lake. We worked on that and became quite good friends. Then, after he became sick, he asked me if I would ever consider working with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I told him, certainly. After Larry died, Gail asked me again, and then pretty soon I heard from Mack Wilberg."
McCullough has made many appearances on stages all over the world, "but I've done nothing like that, with that wonderful choir behind me and all those people in front of me. The first time I stepped out there, I didn't know if I could do it. But it was a thrill, and I'll never forget it."